New Delhi: Some 1.77 million Indians are homeless, but an analysis of states’ circulars regarding provision of lockdown relief for the poor issued between March 9 and May 3, 2020, shows that 16 states with 40% of the country’s homeless make no mention of them at all. Only Delhi, Maharashtra and Kerala talk about regular health checks and safety provisions for the homeless.
With no money and no documents to help them access relief measures related to food, health, water, sanitation, shelter and livelihood, the homeless have become the most vulnerable to the immediate impact and aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, the analysis shows.
Hundreds of government circulars related to COVID-19 relief have been issued so far. The 28 states and one union territory (Delhi) that we analysed have been announcing orders almost every day. But this analysis, by the Indo Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), a non-profit working on sustainable livelihood, focussed only on those relating to the homeless.
Sixteen states make no mention whatsoever of the homeless in their various circulars, we found. These are Assam, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. Of these states, Punjab (46,714), Haryana (51,871), West Bengal (134,040), Uttar Pradesh (329,125) and Gujarat (144,306) are together home to 40% of India’s homeless people, according to the 2011 census.
States such as Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal have ensured the provision of food for ration-card holders under two heads: the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) where households are identified as per the Centre’s criteria and Priority HouseHold (PHH) scheme as per state guidelines. Of these, the homeless might only benefit from the provision of AAY, which includes provisions for ‘destitutes’.
There is some talk of food for the homeless in the circulars issued by Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Tripura. The provision of cooked meals is critical because a lot of shelters do not have kitchens. Currently, some shelters offer dry rations and others cooked food.
“In the upcoming six months, the livelihood situation among the homeless is going to be very difficult,” said Brijesh Arya of Maharashtra Beghar Abhiyan, a collective working for the homeless in the state. “Most homeless people are domestic workers and daily wage labourers. Even after the lockdown, they may not have a livelihood. Then the monsoon will arrive.”
The water crisis is acute for the homeless and given the poor quality of food they consume, they are vulnerable to disease, said Arya.
As of May 3, 2020, only the Maharashtra and Delhi governments have talked about regular health checks for the homeless. Similarly, only Kerala mentions bringing the homeless under safety net provisions.
The only states even talking of providing basic sanitation facilities such as sanitisers, hand-wash and face masks were Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Maharashtra also mentioned the need for adequate water supply in the shelters, as did Kerala, but only as a general measure.
Only the governments of Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, and Maharashtra mentioned running awareness campaigns on COVID-19 for the homeless.
Fourteen states have released circulars prioritising pension funds, cash relief and social security measures, stating that all eligible below-poverty-line families would receive about Rs 1,000 pension fund/cash relief or other forms of social security such as no job termination during the lockdown. But the procedures to avail of these may not benefit the homeless because of lack of documentation.
No access to health facilities
The IGSSS, as an advocacy for the rights of the urban homeless, conducted a survey in May 2019 across Bihar, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to study the problems of the homeless. It tried to figure out exactly who the homeless are and to unfold the status of various factors related to their lives--services, entitlements, government policies, access to shelter, violence and challenges specific to women.
Almost 80% of the homeless belonged to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes, and 60% were born in the same city where they were found, indicating an intergenerational cycle of poverty, concluded the survey that covered 4,382 people across 15 cities. The exercise was mostly executed in the evenings and at night to ensure that only the homeless were captured in the survey.
Around 41.6% of the homeless have no access to any sort of health services, even though 45% of the homeless live within 1 km of a clinic/hospital, as per the 2019 IGSSS survey.
The problem is especially acute for homeless women who have malnutrition and various other diseases, mental health issues and risky pregnancies. With hospitals overburdened with COVID-19, the issue of accessibility is likely to be worse now.
Access to food
Then there is the question of access to food or, more specifically, ration through the public distribution system (PDS). Only 18% of the homeless could avail of ration through PDS benefits and for them, especially the women and children, there exists a barrier in securing a healthy and nutritional diet.
“I have only been eating khichdi since the lockdown began because that is all I get in my food kit,” Ramu Bhai, a basket-maker from Mount Abu who works in Mahim, Mumbai, told the IGSSS over the phone on April 20, 2020. “But I have to survive so I make do with it.”
As of May 3, 2020, no state has mentioned either livelihood restoration or provision of any financial assistance for the homeless in the circulars analysed. Livelihood for the homeless is inextricably linked to the recovery of the informal sector, which forms a major chunk of the Indian economy.
(Das is a researcher who works on issues related to caste and housing. She is also associated with the National Alliance of People’s Movements and the National Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization. She is currently working with the Indo-Global Social Service Society.)